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The Good Samaritan by “the Master of the Good Samaritan,” Dutch, 1537

To fully appreciate today’s cantata, I encourage you to first listen to Luther’s hymn,  Dies sind die heil’gen Zehn Gebot (These are the holy Ten Commandments). I was not familiar with this tune, and had to do some research to understand what the slide trumpet was playing in the opening chorus. It was a very well-known hymn in Bach’s time. The Leipzig congregations sang it many times a year, and also sang it during the church services on Sunday August 22, 1723, the 13th Sunday after Trinity (probably preceded by an organ prelude in the style of BWV 635, see below). It was an important hymn for Bach. You can listen to his own chorale setting of it here.

It is also worthwhile to listen how Bach used this melody in three very different organ works: BWV 635, BWV 678, and BWV 679. He wrote BWV 635 as part of the Orgelbüchlein, in Weimar, the other two in the mid 1730s as part of the Clavier-Übung III.

The cantata for this Sunday, cantata 77 Du sollt Gott, deinen Herren, lieben features this chorale-tune in the opening chorus, but only in the tromba da tirarsi (slide trumpet) part and the continuo part. In the continuo it appears in long notes, and is not as clearly audible as in the trumpet part. There are exactly ten entrances for the trumpet within that opening chorus, the last time featuring the entire chorale tune, of course pointing to the ten commandments.

Bach Collegium Japan’s recording showcases this feature the best of all recordings I listened to, superbly played by Toshio Shimada, on a real tromba da tirarsi. I also like his playing the best in the alto aria. Listen to this recording on Spotify.

Read the text here, and find the score here.

John Eliot Gardiner suggests that Bach made a theological statement by presenting his first two Trinity cantatas in Leipzig,  75 for Trinity 1 (focusing on the love of God/how to be before God) and 76 for Trinity 2 (focusing on brotherly love/how to love one’s neighbor) in close relation to each other, and that all through this 1723 Trinity season he has tried to reinforce the idea that those themes are connected, and how the believers should apply the laws from the Bible to themselves and to their own daily lives. He further argues that with this opening chorus he comes full circle back to that connection, by using a double fugue, by reminding the listeners of the “law” by way of the chorale in  the trumpet part, and by setting the text of the Gospel immediately preceding the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10):

27. Er antwortete und sprach: Du sollst GOtt, deinen HErrn, lieben von ganzem Herzen, von ganzer Seele, von allen Kräften und von ganzem Gemüt und deinen Nächsten als dich selbst.

[27] And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.

After the bass recitative and soprano aria further elaborating on the “Love for God”-theme, and the tenor aria on the “Good Samaritan / Love your neighbor”-theme, we are treated to the most amazing tromba da tirarsi playing of all Bach cantatas written for this instrument, in this very unusual and humble alto aria, beautifully sung by mezzo-soprano Kirsten Sollek, and expertly played on the slide trumpet by Toshio Shimada.

This is an incredibly difficult part for the tromba da tirarsi, and almost impossible to play well on a “regular” Baroque trumpet. Was this Bach’s way of illustrating the “Unvolkommenheit” in the text? Would even Reiche not have been able to play this perfectly, with only a few days rehearsal time? And/or did Bach want people in the church to pay attention, so that this would be a true moment of reflection in the service?

In the region where Bach lived and worked, the trumpeters were very good, and Bach knew them and their world well, especially since he had married into a trumpet family in 1721. All the men in Anna Magdalena Wilcke’s family that we know of (father, brother, and husbands of all three sisters) were well-regarded trumpeters at the Anhalt-Zerbst court, about 17 miles (28 km) directly north of Köthen, and the Saxe-Weissenfels court, about 22 miles (35 km) south-west of Leipzig. The trumpeters in Leipzig were all Stadtpfeifer, employed by the city, and thus not always available to him.

Wieneke Gorter, August 20, 2016, updated September 5, 2020.